A lifelong pursuit of power

Terror: In consolidating his hold on Iraq, Hussein followed the example of Josef Stalin.

The Capture Of Saddam Hussein

December 15, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Saddam Hussein, whose capture came eight months after an American invasion ended his brutal rule in Iraq, had aspired to become an epoch-making leader of his people and a hero to Arabs and Muslims elsewhere.

He encouraged sycophantic writers to portray him as the modern Saladin, the 12th-century warrior credited with uniting Muslim armies to defeat the invading Christian Crusaders. An Iraqi stamp showed Hussein and Saladin, both from the area of Tikrit, side by side; an Iraqi children's book referred to Hussein as Saladin II.

But Hussein's real model in consolidating power and governing by terror was a different leader, from a different place: Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Hussein collected books on Stalin and consciously shaped his regime on the Stalinist model, using never-ending purges of his Baath Party to eliminate potential rivals.

Hussein "stopped a cycle of coups" that had bedeviled Iraq, promoted education and spread fairly widely the wealth from oil sales, said Phebe Marr, author of a widely respected history of Iraq and former fellow at the National Defense University. "But he fastened to Iraq a totalitarian system the degree of which has never been seen before in the Middle East."

"Saddam Hussein brutally forced a symbiosis between tribal traditions, Baath Party doctrine and his cult of personality," said Robert G. Rabil, manager of the Iraqi Research and Documentation Project in Washington, which compiled an extensive library of documents from Hussein's regime.

What Hussein built in Iraq, Rabil said, "is a replica of what Stalin did in the Soviet Union."

But by surrounding himself with grateful relatives and compliant fellow tribesmen from Tikrit, Hussein ultimately undid himself. "There were no checks and balances on his judgment," which sometimes proved terrible, Marr said.

Hussein, who by official accounts of his life is 66, had shared power in Iraq since the Baath Party came to power in 1968. He seized total control in 1979. Historians say he initially helped bring a measure of stability and oil-fueled prosperity to Iraq before squandering the country's wealth and world position in a series of disastrous miscalculations.

His catastrophic military ventures include his attack against Iran in 1980, launching an eight-year war; his invasion of Kuwait in 1990; and the pursuit at least until the early 1990s of biological and chemical arms in the face of United Nations sanctions and world opinion.

The United States and other Western powers courted Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war because they saw his secular regime as a crucial counterweight to the fundamentalist, anti-American Islamic rulers of Iran. In the early 1980s, American envoys - notably including current Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld - overlooked Hussein's suppression of dissent and use of chemical weapons and tried to improve relations.

But Hussein's invasion of Kuwait 13 years ago ended the United States' patience with the Iraqi leader, whose troops were driven out of the neighboring oil-rich emirate. Over the next 12 years, U.N. inspectors and regular airstrikes were used to try to limit the threat Hussein was thought to pose to his neighbors and the West. Finally President Bush, urged on by aides who had long called for Hussein's removal, ordered the invasion that ended his reign.

His impact on the country was devastating. "There are few leaders in Middle Eastern history who have played so dominant a role in pulling a state together," said Marr, the historian. "And few who brought their state so low." Long before the American invasion, the country's economy had been all but ruined, the population cowed by fear and distrust, civil society in a state of collapse.

Hussein was born in 1937 in a village near Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, to a peasant family. His father either died or abandoned the family before his birth, and his mother named him "Saddam," or "one who confronts." Raised by an uncle from the age of 10, he failed to gain admission to the prestigious military academy in Baghdad. He found a place instead as an activist and enforcer for the small, nationalist Baath Party.

In 1959, Hussein was part of a group of Baathists who attempted to assassinate Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim. Legend has it that Hussein was shot during the melee and dug the bullet out of his leg with a knife before fleeing to Egypt.

In Cairo, he completed high school, studied law and was influenced by the revolutionary pan-Arabism of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. But he rushed back to Baghdad in 1963 after Qassim was ousted in a coup carried out with the help of the CIA, which had previously tried to kill Qassim by sending him a poisoned handkerchief. Once in power, the Baath Party arrested and executed hundreds of Communists with the enthusiastic participation of Hussein, according to several accounts by Iraqi emigres.

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